Asked directly during Tuesday night’s debate to condemn the Proud Boys hate group, President Donald Trump told them to “stand back and stand by.”
His family (Donald Trump Jr.) and top campaign aides (Jason Miller) quickly moved to argue Trump had simply made a verbal error in not condemning the Proud Boys, who the Anti-Defamation League’s CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt, told CNN on Wednesday “unequivocally are a hate group” – and that his intent to condemn the group was clear.
“They style themselves as a quote pro-Western fraternity, but their rhetoric frequently invokes antisemitism, misogyny, xenophobia, particularly targeting immigrants, anti-Muslim bias and both homophobia and transphobia,” Greenblatt added.
But this episode feels eerily similar to a number of moments as both a candidate and as President in which Trump seemed to condone (or, at the very least, failed to slap down) racists and hate groups who count themselves as his backers.
* In February 2016, CNN’s Jake Tapper asked Trump, then a candidate for the Republican nomination, whether he would flatly reject the support of white supremacist groups and, in particular, former longtime KKK leader David Duke. “Just so you understand, I don’t know anything about David Duke, OK?,” Trump responded, adding: “I don’t know anything about what you’re even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists. So I don’t know. I don’t know – did he endorse me, or what’s going on? Because I know nothing about David Duke; I know nothing about white supremacists.” Trump’s comment sparked a massive controversy; Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who was competing against Trump for the nomination at the time, said Trump’s inability and unwillingness to distance himself from Duke made him unelectable. The following day, in an appearance on the “Today,” show Trump blamed a “bad earpiece” for his answers (or lack thereof).
* In August 2017, in the wake of a white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, that left a counter-protester dead, Trump insisted that “many sides” were to blame for the violence. Days later, he doubled down on that sentiment, saying that “there is blame on both sides,” and adding: “What about the ‘alt-left’ that came charging at, as you say, the ‘alt-right,’ do they have any semblance of guilt? What about the fact they came charging with clubs in hands, swinging clubs, do they have any problem? I think they do.”
And then there are the literally dozens of times in which Trump has made either outright racist claims or sought to weaponize race for his own political benefit.
There was the time in 2019 when he tweeted that four congresswomen of color should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” (Three members of “The Squad” were born in the United States; the fourth, Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, is a naturalized American citizen.) Or the time he mocked the intelligence of LeBron James and CNN anchor Don Lemon. Or the time when questioned why the United States was accepting immigrants from “s—hole” countries in Africa. Or his pushing of a conspiracy theory that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States despite ample evidence to the contrary. Or the lawsuit the federal government filed against him and his father in the 1970s for racial discrimination in housing rentals.
There’s more. Much more. But the point here is clear: Donald Trump has a very long history of avoiding direct condemnation of white supremacist and other hate groups while simultaneously saying and doing things that any neutral observer would be forced to conclude are racist.
In short: Trump’s baffling comment about the Proud Boys, which the group immediately embraced as a not-so-subtle call to action, don’t land in a vacuum. If they did, maybe White House deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley could get away with saying – credibly – that what the President meant is that “he wants (Proud Boys) to get out of the way,” as he did on CNN’s “New Day” Wednesday morning.
The context – the sheer reams of comments made by Trump about race and white supremacist groups – is an avalanche, however. And it all points very clearly to this reality: Donald Trump has repeatedly not only refused to condemn hate groups but also, in the words he has chosen to describe them and their actions, provided cover and succor to them.